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More Drug Abusers are taking Painkillers with Heroin, Study Finds

Update Date: Oct 29, 2015 11:40 AM EDT

Painkiller abusers who start using heroin do not stop using their prescription opioids, a new study found.

According to researchers from Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis, more people are using the drugs together. The researchers conducted anonymous surveys on 15,000 patients who were attending drug-treatment centers in 49 states from 2008 to 2014. The questions focused on the participants' pattern of drug use and abuse as well as their drug choices.

Participants could choose to give up their anonymity if they wanted to answer more detailed questions and 267 of them did so. Out of this group, 129 people stated that they abused prescription painkillers, such as OxyContin, Vicodin and Percocet, before they started using heroin. 73 percent stated that they turned to heroin because of its low-cost and accessibility.

In terms of regions, the researchers found that on the East and Wests coasts, the number of users who combined heroin and painkillers surpassed the number of users that only abused opioids. Senior investigator, Theodore J. Cicero, Ph.D., noted that this trend was not as apparent in the Midwest and in the Deep South.

"In the Deep South, we saw a persistent use of prescription drugs -- but not much heroin," Cicero said.

Overall, in 2014, 42 percent of the surveyed drug users stated that they took painkillers with heroin within the first month of staring treatment. This rate is significantly higher than the 23.6 percent that the researchers calculated in 2008. The researchers also found that the percentage of people who only abused prescription painkillers declined from 70 percent to less than 50 percent during this time frame. Exclusive heroin usage, however, increased from four percent to nine percent.

"We see very few people transition completely from prescription opioids to heroin; rather, they use both drugs," Cicero said. "There's not a total transition to heroin, I think, because of concerns about becoming a stereotypical drug addict."

The findings were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

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